A Long Island Town Freezes New Housing, Highlighting Hochul’s Uphill Battle
Hempstead once passed plans to spur apartments near LIRR stations. Now it’s extending a development moratorium.
Gov. Kathy Hochul wants New York to be the next state that requires towns and cities to build more housing, especially near transit — as California, New Jersey, Connecticut and others already do. Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly are pushing back, proposing instead to offer financial incentives for new housing construction amid complaints that the governor is bulldozing local control.
Could cash incentives without mandates to communities actually spur more development? Three localities in the Town of Hempstead, in Nassau County on Long Island, offer a test case playing out at the same time as the state showdown.
The Hempstead Town Board in 2019 and 2020 greenlit two zoning updates intended to pave the way for more development near Long Island Railroad stations.
“Transit-oriented development” clusters housing, shops, restaurants and services near public transportation to make walkable, compact neighborhoods, where residents can rely less on cars.
But last year, the town halted all development in one of the areas for six months in response to community concerns that centered on whether infrastructure — including the roads, water system, and emergency services — could handle an influx of people.
“Conceptually, from a planning standpoint, I think it is generally a good idea,” said Jack Libert, the town supervisor’s chief of staff. But the reality, he says, is something quite different in an area where getting around quickly by car is a priority.
“The population here has grown by leaps and bounds. The traffic patterns have changed,” Libert said.
On Tuesday, the town board extended that moratorium for one year. It applies to the village of Lawrence and the hamlet of Inwood along the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch.
But a third community in the same town is moving forward with its plan for development, off the Baldwin station on LIRR’s Babylon Branch. Baldwin got $10 million from a state-sponsored competition promoting thriving downtowns, with apartments in the mix. The project might have happened anyway — but the cash award did not hurt.
Hochul’s housing scheme would require communities in the MTA service area, which includes Long Island on the LIRR and New York City’s northern suburbs on the Metro-North along with NYC itself, to increase their housing supply by 3% over three years or face state overrides to allow more development.
But whatever the fate of the governor’s proposal, planners who have studied New York’s housing needs say that Long Island is key to a solution to the region’s housing shortage after lagging for years on development.
“The more housing that gets built on Long Island, the less pressure there is on housing prices in the city,” said Chris Jones, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association. “It also means that there’s more choice for everyone.”
Fewest New Homes
Hochul wants to create 800,000 housing units around the state, focusing on areas around transit hubs. Under her proposal, areas within half a mile of a subway or commuter rail station would have to allow at least 50 housing units per acre there, which would necessarily mean apartment buildings.
“We’re trying to find some balance between people feeling that they want a bespoke plan, and us trying to have something that is broad enough of a framework, yet tailored to localities, that it can work without that,” said RuthAnne Visnauskas, commissioner of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
But the recent budget proposals put forth by the state Senate and Assembly — both of which are controlled by Democratic supermajorities — leave out the transit-oriented development requirements the governor has proposed, as well as her plan to let the state override local zoning laws.
Long Island is particularly fraught political territory. Last year, Long Island Republicans flipped three previously Democratic seats in the state Senate and three in the Assembly. Most voters there backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, then a Congressman, over Hochul.
Long Islanders across the political spectrum say planning that respects the complex layers of local government has to be the basis of any potential development.
“We spent 25 years getting transit-oriented development approved and built out here, and the approach is bottom-up,” said Eric Alexander, the director of Vision Long Island, an organization focused on planning downtowns.
The fight for control underpinning the housing negotiations is, as Alexander put it, a “kind of battle between the state saying, ‘We need to do this big plan,’ and then the community saying, ‘You don’t tell us what to do.’”
But that local control limits residential development, even in the face of crushing regional need for new housing. Existing property owners have a financial incentive to nix expanded development, because where housing is scarce and in heavy demand, property values will remain high. Restrictive single-family zoning has endured even as other discriminatory practices, such as racial redlining, became illegal.
Long Island is fertile ground for new housing development, especially near its rail stations. The state is funneling billions of dollars worth of investments to improve and modernize LIRR service, including recently opened Grand Central Madison service to Manhattan’s east side.
Yet over the last decade, Nassau County and Suffolk County permitted the fewest units of new housing in the state: just seven units for every 1,000 residents, according to a 2022 report by the Regional Plan Association. The RPA’s earlier research found that Nassau had more rail stations than any other New York county with the infrastructure to accommodate transit-oriented development — yet it lacks the zoning that would allow for apartment construction.
Without a housing mandate and enforcement, Jones warned, development will not occur “anywhere near the scale that we need.”
Nassau County would need to build just over 19,000 units to grow its housing by 3%, according to data compiled by lohud.com.
“I have not seen any place across the country that’s really been able to do it without some type of state requirement,” said RPA’s Jones.
Visnauskas agreed, noting that most places in the state can achieve the goals with existing zoning. Those that might not have anywhere to grow can undertake rezoning processes, adding another three years to the timeline before enforcement would begin.
“It sort of serves this purpose not to actually have housing get built via the enforcement board, but [it] really creates a condition where localities will say ‘Fine, we will rezone because we know that if we do that, then at least we can get to control as we want to,’” Visnauskas said.
But that analysis is at odds with the view of local political leaders, including Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican.
“Here in Nassau County, we are already pretty developed to our capacity, with some exceptions where we can do micro-targeting of some transportation-oriented development,” said Blakeman. “I think there are some opportunities for that, but certainly not on the scale that’s currently being proposed” by Hochul.
When he sat on the Hempstead Town Board, Blakeman spearheaded a zoning change meant to encourage transit-oriented development near the Inwood and Lawrence LIRR stations, just southeast of JFK Airport.
The stations are about a half-mile apart, with the Nassau Expressway between them. In Lawrence, a village of about 6,800 residents — 97% white, with a median household income of about $154,000 — stately houses with swing sets and basketball hoops give way to a more industrial area to the north across the railroad tracks, where scattered apartment houses, churches and taxi bases are located.
Inwood, which is larger and not as wealthy, has a deli, nail salon, pharmacy and post office situated between empty storefronts, with auto shops and warehouses nearby. A parking lot adjacent to the train station takes up almost an entire block.
The transit-oriented plan, approved by the town board in 2019, was projected to add about 550 apartments near the train stations, with 60 units per acre in buildings up to five stories high.
Those areas will likely stay as they are for the foreseeable future.
The moratorium passed Tuesday followed backlash to other development proposals in the area. Judith Bernstein, president of the Lawrence Civic Association, said she hopes the town does its “due diligence” to determine if the area has the resources to support new housing.
“We’re not NIMBYs. We don’t have enough water. We don’t have enough roads. We don’t have infrastructure,” Bernstein said. “We’re not opposed to building, but we want to do it right.”
A resident who testified at a town hearing last year said he didn’t want where he lived to turn into “another Brooklyn.” Another resident asked for a permanent, not temporary, moratorium on development.
Neither Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin, a Republican, nor Councilmember Melissa Miller, a Republican whose district includes Inwood and Lawrence, voted for the Inwood and North Lawrence rezoning, since they had not been elected yet at the time. When the Inwood rezoning was approved in 2019, Laura Gillen, a Democrat, was the town supervisor, and Blakeman sat in Miller’s Council seat.
Clavin, during a town meeting Tuesday, said he couldn’t speak to what his predecessor approved, but wanted to respect community concerns. Miller told THE CITY the area is “congested” and “dense” to begin with, and that residents have valid worries about whether the existing infrastructure can support more people and cars.
The town attorney, John Maccarone, on Tuesday said the town would come up with other ideas for consideration as it “reviews” the zoning that was approved years ago.
“This is a basic question about whether or not the Town Board or supervisor wants high-density zoning in these areas,” Maccarone said.
Though the moratorium further delays the housing development Blakeman paved way for years ago, he told THE CITY he thinks the plan — created closely with the community — still has merit, and that it will take shape eventually.
“But I also understand now that the town is looking on a macro level at everything they’re doing in the town to ensure that they have the proper infrastructure,” Blakeman said.
Meanwhile, another tale for transit-oriented development is playing out in Baldwin, a hamlet of almost 34,000 people, less than 10 miles northwest of Lawrence. (On Long Island, “hamlet” is an official designation, along with village and town.) Nearly as many Black residents live in Baldwin as white, and the median household income is about $126,000.
Grand Avenue, the main commercial drag, runs perpendicular to the elevated LIRR tracks. Most of its low-slung storefronts are home to independent businesses: a florist, bagel shop, mini markets, beauty salons and barbers, cleaners and laundry, real estate firms and print shops.
A few apartment buildings, three stories high, are set back from the road. Many more single-family homes with tidy lawns are tucked away from the zooming traffic.
The plan, over 25 years in the making, was to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and add new apartment buildings, stores and restaurants, said Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé, a Democrat, whose district includes Baldwin.
In August 2019, the state selected Baldwin as the Long Island region’s winner as part of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, awarding $10 million to jumpstart the development. The following year, the Hempstead Town Board adopted the “zoning overlay” that would pave the way for the vision of Baldwin’s new downtown to proceed — allowing for mixed-use buildings up to about seven stories high.
“The community wants to be on the vanguard of the 21st century — 22nd century, actually — whereby we offer the amenities and lifestyles of the future kids,” said Darien Ward, the former president of the Baldwin Civic Association. “Housing is a reflection of the community’s resiliency and its ability to adapt to the changing metrics of people. Not being a homeowner doesn’t make you any less a person.”
In 2022, the Hempstead Town Board headed by Clavin floated a moratorium on development in Baldwin at the same time it did for Inwood and North Lawrence, but dropped it after residents pushed back.
Mulé and several supporters of the downtown Baldwin revitalization plan came together to rally in support of the developments.
“I’m hoping that once the developers start building other developers will say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a good place to be,’ and there will be more and more good development happening,” she said.